Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Finances of the Grand Duke

Die Finanzen des Großherzogs (The Finances of the Grand Duke), 1924
Dir: F.W. Murnau
January 1, 2010

Somewhat of a head-scratcher, this light comedy of errors isn't really what I want to see when thinking about a typical Murnau film, but it amused from time to time. So, right there you have to think about whether being amused (and not just in a lightish tone) is good enough, or if you want something to be actually funny. It's obvious
that Murnau's comedic skills were far less developed than his flair for drama and melodrama. However, there are some good points throughout this film, even opportunities for him to throw in his signature expressionism. The plot is not especially credible nor especially funny (so Thea von Harbou sucking once again), and each chapter of the story is prefaced with an introductory title which (except for the climactic one) features a long, long description of who these people are and what they mean to accomplish. I hate that stuff, as I have already written about. The best performance in the film is given by Alfred Abel, who was good in a very different kind of role in Phantom (1922). Here, surprisingly, he's quite funny as a wealthy eccentric who resorts to various scams and false identities to enrich himself even more. Although long stretches of this comedy are unfunny, this nevertheless contains the what some think is the earliest example of a perennial sight gag called "the punctuated stampede." We've all seen this gag in dozens of cartoons: a mob of figures rush across the screen, followed by a pause, and then one last little straggler brings up the rear. In this film, for no discernible reason, a top-hatted Abel contrives to send a pack of wolfhounds racing through his own mansion...with a little dachshund bringing up the rear to punctuate the stampede. It's pretty bizarre and got my biggest laugh. In the central role of Don Ramon the Twenty-Second, Grand Duke of the Mediterranean nation of Abacco, Harry Liedtke is only vaguely amusing. Fans of Nosferatu (1922) will be intrigued to see Max Schreck's name in the cast list here. Schreck plays one of a quartet of political agitators. He wears a long straggly beard and looks impressively gaunt but has almost nothing to do, except for one amusing bit of physical business when a maidservant chases him out of the Grand Duke's castle. A far more impressive (and much more physical) performance is given by Hans Schaufuss as Schreck's hunchbacked co-conspirator. Schaufuss leaps, capers, goggles at the camera, and even swings from a rope. The exterior photography is excellent, and I felt a twinge during a shot of a tram moving through a city's streets at night, reminding me that he's capable of such visual moments. Several sequences were shot on shipboard, and I was pleased to see the horizon heaving up and down realistically, unlike in so many Hollywood films which feature stationary cameras in "shipboard" sequences. There's one scene at the very beginning where the Duke is throwing coins to a group of skinny dipping boys, also shot really well, but it seemed to me that while it was supposed to be a way of showing how thriftless the Duke is, it might also have been one of Murnau's subtle "gay identity" moments. Either way it's really weird. After reading some other reviews and Murnau biographies, it seems Murnau wasn't really that happy with this. It's typical Euro-farce stuff that really didn't let him use his talents as a filmmaker.


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